North Korea INSIDE LOOK: Soap operas shift to romance to woo youth and Pyongyang elite

Programming in North Korea has turned away traditional themes of party loyalty under Kim Jong-un, who has pushed a new agenda to show-off the material benefits – laptop computers, fashionable clothes and gold watches – of being devoted citizens.

According to Jean Lee, a fellow at the Wilson Centre in Washington DC, the shift in narrative portrayed in the hermit state’s soap operas was to breakaway from the obsession his father, Kim Jon-il, possessed in putting the military first, social conformity and unquestioning dedication to the ruling elite.

That approach resulted in dozens of films with titles such as “The Lieutenant of Those Days” and “A Day of Training” – which defectors have confined were largely ignored because they were so utterly unrealistic.

Kim Jong-un, however, had been influenced by the soap operas that are so common on South Korean television, Ms Lee said, who was also previously the head of the Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang.

She said: “There is a very different focus in the Kim Jong-un era, with TV dramas being used to emphasise the importance of family and community.

“There is an effort to repair some of the social fabric that was stripped away during the 17 years his father ruled.

“It is also interesting that a lot of these dramas effectively encourage people to think outside the box, a huge departure from the time they told not to challenge the status quo.”

Ms Lee added: “There is also a strong nationalistic element, teaching people the right way for a model citizen to behave.”

She said the messages may be more nuanced, but the programmes remain propaganda and are still designed to “culture” citizens’ loyalty.

Ms Lee focused her research on four drama series that appealed to different sectors whose support Kim requires; Pyongyang’s elites, young members of the military, students and aspiring athletes who can bring the nation glory.

The shows, named Our Neighbours, Young Researchers, an untitled product about football and Value Others, represent North Koreans as reaping the benefits of serving the regime faithfully so one can have material awards, studying the sciences to become the next generation of missile and nuclear scientists, and being kind to fellow comrades.

In a paper for the Korea Economic Institute of America, Ms Lee wrote: “The characters are young, bright, clever, loyal and sometimes mischievous – innocuous versions of the leader himself.

“While Kim Jong-il’s propagandists sought to portray the people of North Korea as orphans who should look up to Kim as their surrogate father … Kim Jong-un is portrayed as their friend and comrade.”